A truculent wind rattles our house on Threadneedle Street. Stomps the garden, haunts the chimney like a demented, premature Noel Baba. Still, the big living-room window lures us from the fireside.
Beyond the wind-battered pane, the night garden stages a skeletal opera: leafless trees and shrubs waving skinny arms and seed-filled heads to Nature’s aria. Burnished leaves dance across the shaggy lawn. I press my hands against the chilly glass, my eyes adjusting to the interplay of shadows. Gillray- a lean orange tabby with enigmatic eyes – leans against my leg: humbug tail enwrapping my calf, chest reverberating. He enjoys these nightly observations as much as I do.
Our moon-rimmed visitor doesn’t so much emerge as resolve from wet black shadows- darkness itself stretching and tearing to form her. She strides through the tormented garden to the window, places a gloved hand on the glass. We feel her shuddering desire through the strange connection. Gillray’s fur static-crackles, his purr thunders.
Her washed grey eyes seem ancient, pulsing with sadness on a winter-white-smudge face. Platinum hair escapes her inky crepe hood to tattoo her cheeks. Her smile is the curve of the suturing needle, sharp with purpose. Something darkening. Something she is perhaps doomed to seek. A vengeful need that crazes the glass with frost. Gillray mewls. I breathe out white shivers. We don’t fear the Old Lady. She’s not here for us.
She’s here for him. He is already damned.
I used to have a Mama. One who sewed flowers and birds onto beautiful quilts, baked decadent cakes and pies, nurtured herbs and roses. One with cheeky hazel eyes and an unashamedly loving smile. The antithesis to my father: a bank manager represented by a series of depressed-grey suits and empty eyes. He envied Mama’s warmth and light, drained it at times and then left her in the soot of shadow.
Mama disappeared on a night hushed by snow, somehow leaving without disturbing a flake. Without Grandma’s gold watch and Granda’s medals. Without us. Gone while I was sleeping under extra blankets with a furry neck-warmer, both girl and cat dreaming of spring.
The next morning, I found an empty kitchen, the absence of gardenia-lily shampoo in the chill air. Father at the dining-room table – his face like congealed oatmeal, hands red-raw to the wrists - said she’d left us. Taken only her favourite handbag and plaid wool coat. He drank too much coffee and left his eggs to harden on the plate. I marched out into the snow, my slippers vanishing, the cold climbing and cloaking me until I was numb. Gillray stood in the doorway wailing. We knew she’d never choose to leave.
Father didn’t mention her again. Climbed into his grey suits and concerned himself only with others’ debts. Then it was spring, far from how we’d dreamed it, and the Old Lady came. Sensing my boiling grief- knowing it, honing it.
Tonight, there’s an urgency to the Old Lady, and a terrible peace. I unlock the front door, turn and follow Gillray slowly up the stairs. Behind us, the door howls open and a breath colder than any wind moves my hair, caresses my neck. Bristles the fur on Gillray’s tail. We reach the landing - bright squares of wallpaper where photos once hung, a vase of dried Goldenrod that rustle-shivers. I go left, cat at my ankle, and the Old Lady glides right. A swirling storm cloud of black crepe and menace glimpsed over my shoulder, pushing open Father’s door, crashing inside.
In bed under extra blankets, Gillray and I drift to sleep as the windsong reaches a clamorous crescendo. The next morning, only ashy smears are tangled in Father’s sour sheets – I tear them from the bed and cut them to ribbons for the fire.
Winter is close on the night before we leave to live with Mama’s sister. We have one last nighttime visit while Aunt Julia sleeps unaware in the guest room above us, wrapped in one of Mama’s quilts. The garden is calm in this final darkness, peaceful. Pressed to the big window, I frown when two figures approach. One familiar in her veils of shadow, grey eyes glittering. The second- a coalescence of fireflies and silvery moths- has cheeky hazel eyes. An unashamedly loving smile.
Mama presses her hands to the glass: one each for me and Gillray. He whines sorrowfully, orange paw raised. I smell hot pastry and thyme. A feather’s waft of gardenia-lily. Mama whispers a few papery words to dry my tears, and I kiss the glass between us to feel the ghost of her warm cheek. I pick up Gillray, press him to my aching chest. The Old Lady takes Mama’s arm and when they turn, the night enfolds them in a winter-borne embrace.
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